BEHIND THE SCENES
With the novel in hand, the producers’ next step was to find screenwriters capable of translating the story from the page to the big screen. Bob Levy and Leslie Morgenstein met with a number of writers before selecting the team of Sean Anders and John Morris to adapt the book into an outrageous and uproarious script that was eventually dubbed Sex Drive.
"Once we met Sean and John and heard their vision of this movie, it was clear sailing," says Levy. "They came in and blew us out of the room with a take that was a thousand percent smarter, funnier and more real than anything else we heard. They had figured out exactly how to translate the book into a movie." Morris and Anders had previously collaborated on the teen-oriented comedy, Never Been Thawed, which became a cult hit on college campuses across the country.
From the beginning, they were determined to put their unique stamp on the project. "The film is quite a bit different from the book that Bob sent us," says Anders, who also directed the film. "But it has the same general premise: Kid drives across the country to lose his virginity. John and I enjoyed it and immediately started talking about how to make it more cinematic and fun and crazy."
The pair took inspiration for Sex Drive from the films of John Hughes, the auteur of adolescent adventures like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. "Like Hughes we started with story and characters," says Anders. "When we felt we had that nailed down, then we would think, how could this be funny? And we would try to make it funny."
According to Levy, that’s an understatement of the team’s talents. "It’s one thing to be funny—there are a lot of funny writers in Hollywood," he points out. "These guys are also smart. They’ve created great, original jokes, but they’re also telling a magnificent story filled with really deep, rich characterizations. To find that skill-set in one package is a very rare thing.
"There are people in this business who’ve been pounding away for years," says the producer. "These guys have only been at it for a short time. Hollywood is the last great meritocracy and their rise has been really meteoric. John and Sean are the real deal." Levy describes the plot of Sex Drive as an archetypal human story. "It’s about looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s about thinking what you want is sex and realizing what you need is love."
That underlying theme is what Levy says makes the film work on many different levels. "It’s smart. It’s stupid. It’s emotional. It’s physical. It’s witty. It’s sexual. It’s about courage and fear. Putting so many different kinds of things together makes the storytelling richer, makes all the jokes funnier and makes you love all the characters even more."
From the very first meeting, Anders pitched himself to direct the movie as well as script it. Despite having only one previous feature under his belt, he approached the project with the sure hand of a veteran, says Levy. "He really zeroed in on exactly what the tone of this movie should be—a sort of heightened fun reality. To a great extent, the humor depends on a balance between the three kids, who are strongly grounded in reality, and the slightly heightened characters and situations that befall them on the road.
But the core of the journey is the real and relatable characters." "Of course, the film has a fair share of broad, as well as smart, humor," observes actor Clark Duke, who plays the unlikely teen Lothario, Lance. "I wouldn’t compare the movie to American Pie so much as to an ‘80s comedy. It’s sort of screwball, but Josh, Amanda and I went at our characters from a naturalistic place. Some of the stuff that happens is ridiculous, in a good way, but the main three characters are going at it from a realistic perspective."
Seth Green, who is unforgettable in a fine supporting role as a sardonic Amish car mechanic, notes that the alchemy of comedy is more art than science. "It’s always a roll of the dice and somewhat lucky when you get the right group of people together with the right director and the right material. You never know until you get there. I was happy that when I got here that’s exactly what I got. "You’d never have known that Sean was not a long-time director," says the prolific young actor whose numerous memorable roles have ranged from Scott Evil in the Austin Powers trilogy to the voice of Chris Griffin on "Family Guy." "He is knowledgeable and has a really clear sense of what it is that he wants. He’s also got great taste in comedy and such a keen sense of what it’s going to look like at the end. But he’s also open to spontaneity, which is a really good quality, because we had a lot of people who could riff brilliantly if given the opportunity. Sean was really good at catching the right moments and letting them play out."
Bob Levy concurs. "It was such a pleasure to be on the set and watch brilliantly funny people do what they do best. To see Sean give them the comfort and security and license to be themselves and to be funny and to be comedians was inspiring."
Part of the filmmakers’ vision for Sex Drive was to assemble the funniest people they could find and turn them loose, according to Bob Levy. "We cast really talented funny people and gave them a blueprint in script form. Sean allowed them to bring their own sensibility and their own vision to the journey."
Both Anders and Levy say that they were surprised and amused when they realized how much the three leading actors actually resembled their characters. "At times, we would just turn on the camera and say, ‘Be yourself,’" says the director. "Josh is a really nice guy and a little bit awkward. Clark is kind of the chick machine; he gets all the ladies. So we just put the camera in front of them and let them do their thing." Josh Zuckerman, who has been working regularly in television and film since he was ten years old, was the filmmakers’ first choice to play Ian because of his innate vulnerability, as well as his skill at comedy. "His primary job here is to make the audience fall in love with him," says Levy. "They need to care about whether he gets the girl at the end of the story. Josh is emotional and sensitive and caring and smart and intelligent and all of those things overlap in Josh Zuckerman the actor and Ian Lafferty the character. Hopefully that will make the viewer root for him to make the right choice."
"For me, Josh was the perfect choice for Ian," says Anders, "He definitely is an attractive kid and a likeable guy. And as a person, he’s really sweet, polite and decent. And yet, at the same time, he’s like anybody his age. He’s insecure and he’s got all that post-teen craziness that fits the character. As we got to know Josh more after we hired him, we thought, `My God, this guy really is Ian.’" For his part, Zuckerman was happy to find that the teen sex comedy worked on multiple layers and that the characters grow throughout the course of the story. "When I first read the script, I thought it was very funny," says the actor, "It’s got great gags, but I also really responded to the degree of character development in Ian and Felicia and Lance. On the surface, it’s all about sex, but it becomes so much more than that. It becomes about friendship and about change as they all develop into something new by the end of the movie."
One of those "great gags" moved Zuckerman’s co-star James Marsden to call him "one of the more ballsy actors I’ve ever worked with. It takes a lot of guts to get dressed up like a donut and sincerely deliver the lines." The costume, which Ian is forced to wear for his summer job at Señor Donut, transforms the teen into a gigantic walking pastry and makes him a target for crude jokes as he patrols the mall trying to drum up business "It made me laugh every time," says actor Clark Duke. "I’m a big fan of the donut costume. I wanted to get him one of those big signs they have out in the corners in L.A. that the guys flip around."
For the role of Felicia, the filmmakers held a series of auditions in Los Angeles planning to tailor the part for the actress they selected. "Then we got this tape of Amanda Crew," says Anders, "Suddenly there was no question about who should play Felicia. Amanda was absolutely the Felicia I had in my head."
"She was pretty, but also edgy and she seemed real and cool," he continues. "She seemed like the kind of girl that hangs out in your neighborhood and who is friends with all the guys, but she’s still hot. She’s just really together and you’ve got to be careful around her, because she has a sharp tongue."
"Amanda is Felicia in ways none of us knew before we met her on the set," agrees Bob Levy. "Amanda is honest and fearless and the kind of person who doesn’t censor herself—and that’s exactly who Felicia is." Not playing a stereotypical "chick" in a teen movie was what attracted Crew to the role.
"Usually young actresses have to play the hot sexy girl next door that all the guys want," she says. "Felicia is a tomboy with this really tough exterior, but really, inside she’s like any other girl who has a soft interior that she’s trying to protect. When I read the script, I was like ‘I have to play this character.’ I think I’m a lot like her."
"I really enjoyed working on a project that everybody was completely dedicated to," she continues. "From day one, Sean has shown how committed he is to it. When the filmmakers are so committed, you want give it your all, too. You don’t want to let them down."
Clark Duke, who plays Ian’s wingman, Lance Nesbit, is one of the stars of the television series "Greek" and appeared in the comedy megahit Superbad. But he first made a name for himself with the Internet comedy show "Clark and Michael," which he created with fellow actor Michael Cera. The filmmakers readily admit that Duke initially seems an improbable choice for Lance, a super cool chick magnet and all around player.
The character was conceived as a classically good looking, square jawed, blue-eyed pretty boy. Levy credits Anders and Morris with the idea of casting Duke as Lance. "They were constantly asking ‘How can we make this more surprising? How can we make this richer and more interesting and less clichéd?’" Duke had been brought in to audition for the part of Ian. "But the reason they called me is that they had seen an episode of ‘Clark and Michael’ where I karate-kick a girl in the chest" says the actor. "They said they really liked the weird sense of confidence that the Clark character had."
"It’s about the personality, it’s about the style, it’s about the confidence more than it is about the classic American good looks," says Levy. "You love Clark and believe that he’s the guy who gets all the girls because of that swagger." Co-star Zuckerman agrees that Duke is not the pin-up version of the "popular guy." "I would say Clark is the more the real, live version of that, the guy who’s just so likeable. He has more confidence and charm than most people I know. A lot of it has to do with his humor and his intelligence."
"When I first read the script, I thought it was hilarious," says Duke. "But I was especially attracted to the role of Lance. By going completely against the cliché, the character immediately became much more interesting and true to life. It shows that it’s more your confidence and your demeanor than your looks that make you a strong personality. And I find that true in real life, too."
The filmmakers scored a real coup when James Marsden, a heartthrob well known for his romantic roles in hit films like Enchanted and Hairspray, signed on to play Rex, Ian’s ridiculously cocky older brother. "When you work with an actor of James Marsden’s stature, you have to be concerned about whether or not the actor is really going to commit to playing an unflattering character," says Levy. "From the first take of his first set-up, he locked into Rex and was fearless and hilarious. He relished the opportunity to play against type. He loved being the jerk that Rex is." Marsden says the script was one of the funniest he’d ever read. "But when you’re reading a script, you have to consider the execution. You know, who’s the director?
Who are the other actors? Are they going to do the dumb version of it or are they going to do the really smart version of it? "Comedy’s harder to do than serious dramatic work," he continues. "You have to believe that these characters are in that moment for real. And if it’s played straight and played real, then the comic moments can breathe and come to life." Marsden had definite ideas about how the character was going to look. "I grew up in Oklahoma and I know who this guy is. He’s 34, 35 and he’s still living with his parents. He frosts his tips and he’s got an earring that he got at the mall. It’s in the left ear, not the right, because otherwise he’d be gay, and he needs to make sure that everybody knows he’s not gay."
His first day on the set, the actor showed up in his idea of Rex’s costume, including kung fu pants and a cut-off sweatshirt. "We’re, like, ‘Dude, go over to wardrobe,’" recalls Anders. "And he said, ‘No. I’m wearing this.’ And I said, ‘We have better clothes for you. You look like a jackass.’ He said ‘This is what I roll in.’ He was right." Because the three main characters spend most of the film driving cross country, the writers were able to create a wealth of rich supporting roles. "Every time they stop somewhere for a couple of minutes of screen time, we’re meeting new characters," says Levy. "We were able to have some great comedic actors fly in and knock their scenes out of the ball park."
Seth Green plays Ezekiel, an Amish man who strayed a little too far from the farm in his youth and picked up some worldly skills, like hot-rod repair. "Ezekial is purely a function of Sean and John’s imagination," says Bob Levy. "And the character is contrary to any way that we’ve ever seen or imagined Seth Green."
Anders says that they had Green in mind for the part from the very beginning. "We wanted this worldly Amish guy to be really sarcastic," he says. "Nobody does sarcasm quite like Seth Green."
"Seth was so happy to embrace the wardrobe and the Amish beard, which were really hot and uncomfortable," producer Levy adds. "Our hair and makeup people and wardrobe people researched the Amish experience carefully to try and recreate something that was authentic. Seth used the look of Ezekiel as a starting point to launch the character and the great performance that he came up with."
Green refers to himself, somewhat ironically, as "the mouthpiece of modern Amish youth." The actor says, "The typical, cinematic portrayal of the Amish is either incredibly dramatic or really ridiculous. There’s never been a really accurate depiction of Amish teenagers. You’re either Lukas Haas in Witness or you’re Randy Quaid in Kingpin. So I thought this was a great opportunity." The road trip also gave the filmmakers a chance to pack the film with hilarious cameos from some seriously recognizable faces. "Dave Koechner, who’s appeared in some of the great Will Ferrell movies, just killed in his scene as a hitchhiker," says Levy. "Kyle Gass, who has worked with Jack Black in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, is hilarious as a trucker. Brian Posehn from "The Sarah Silverman Program" plays a carnie having sort of a verbal sparring match with Ian and Lance.
"We’ve also found some fresh kids who are really funny," he continues. "Charlie McDermott and Mark Young, play Andy and Randy, who are the Beavis and Butt-Head of fumbling high school pick-up artists. These two kids just are natural born comedians." Shooting in Florida allowed the filmmakers to draw from the deep pool of actors working in Miami’s thriving entertainment industry. One of those lucky performers was Caley Hayes, who makes her acting debut as Mandy, a provocative blonde cheerleader, who happens to be promoting abstinence.
"Mandy more or less seduces Ian into coming to watch her dance, and he doesn’t know that it’s an abstinence pledge gimmick," says Levy. "He’s pulled into this tent by sexy young girl dancers who are doing this hip-hop routine." Hayes had some behind-the-scenes show business experience, but had never been in front of a camera before. "It was my first audition. Ever. I’d never done commercials. I’d never done movies. I’d never even been an extra."
She says she really had no idea what she was getting into. "The first day everyone was asking me, "Are you nervous? Are you nervous?" When I got in front of the cameras, I was just like, ‘Wow, like this is amazing.’ It was probably the best day of my life!"
The cast and crew were extremely supportive, she says. "It made it so much easier that they were all amazing actors and actresses. I think being able to work with people my age who kind of know where I’m coming from was also helpful for my first time." And finally, the actress cast as Ms. Tasty, Ian’s Internet hottie, had to be beautiful and sexy, but not intimidating. "Katrina Bowden, who’s well-known from "30 Rock," has to be the ultimate lure, the girl that nobody could resist driving from Chicago to Knoxville to see," says Anders. "The interesting thing is that in person, she doesn’t have that much
of an edge. It was kind of funny watching a really sweet girl having to work that hard at being a bitch."
The drive from Chicago to Knoxville winds through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky before rolling into Tennessee some 500 miles later. Along the way, the road passes through metropolises like Indianapolis, small bedroom communities and farmland. The filmmakers mined the deep vein of discoveries they made along the road to create an authentic, if offbeat, adventure.
"The movie is really all about the drive and all the crazy stuff that befalls Ian and his two friends along the way," Levy says. "I think the road in movies in our culture represents freedom and independence. What does every kid want but to make his own decisions? To make her own choices? This is physically and emotionally a journey for our hero that results in his becoming a new person."
The idea of doing a classic road movie appealed to Anders and Morris, especially one with Sex Drive’s 21st century update. "The book had a concept that was really contemporary in that it all starts on the Internet," says the director. "And yet, it’s also totally relatable for just about anyone, because it’s something everybody has been through or will be going through."
Clark Duke also thinks the story of leaving high school and going on the road will appeal to audiences. "Most people can relate to the whole experience of graduating high school and either going to college or graduating into some adult job," he says. "And the whole setting of the summer before college is such a weird, transitional period in your life. It’s a really good setting for a movie."
Every good road trip needs a method of transportation and the car that Ian, Lance and Felicia take on the road is a legend with car aficionados: "The Judge," a bright orange Pontiac GTO. Considered one of the first muscle cars, the Judge ruled in street performance from 1969 to 1971. "The car is another great example of how Sean and John took the book and elevated it to a whole new level," says Bob Levy. "In the book it’s called ‘The Monster’ and it’s an old 1980s beater. Sean and John said, ‘This is a movie. This is visual. We’ve got to love looking at this thing."
"It’s fast, sexy, masculine machine and it’s an important character in the movie," says Anders. "It embodies exactly the journey that Ian is taking. It’s this overwhelmingly powerful thing that he can’t control, that he’s afraid of at the beginning of the story and by the end of the story, Ian’s the master of The Judge." Among the places Ian, Lance and Felicia visit on their journey, the Amish community that becomes an unlikely rest stop for them may be the most memorable. When Anders and Morris discovered that the community has a significant presence in Indiana and Ohio, they were inspired to incorporate Rumspringa, a little-known Amish custom into their script. Translated from Pennsylvania Dutch as "running around," Rumspringa allows young people to explore the outside world before committing to the church’s rules. When an Amish youth turns 16, he or she is allowed to experiment with forbidden behaviors. For some, it may be as simple as riding in a car for the first time.
For others, it might be as extreme as experimenting with hard drugs.
As Seth Green explains, "It’s a period in which Amish teens are allowed to explore things outside the community so that they can dedicate themselves by choice to the life and ways of the Amish. But sometimes outrageous things happen, because it’s this concentrated effort —‘I’ve only got a small period of time and I’m really going to see what the world’s got to offer.’"
The filmmakers staged an all-out bacchanal in honor of Rumspringa. "In the movie, our kids are pretty sure it will be washout," says Levy. "But when they walk in the Rumspringa barn, there is this internationally known stadium band blowing the place out at this crazy kick-ass ‘Amish Hash Bash.’" Kicking out the jams for the occasion are pop superstars Fall Out Boy. "We made a wish list of bands that would be immediately recognizable when the barn doors open," says Levy. "Right at the top was Fall Out Boy. We sent them the script and crossed our fingers. We were just thrilled that they wanted to do the movie. Honestly, we were all as excited as any teenager to go to the Rumspringa party and watch."
The filmmakers freely admit to taking some liberties with Amish culture. As Anders says, "If you know anything about the Amish, you’re going to say over and over again, "Wow, they got that wrong! But our feeling was if you’re Amish and you’re at the movies—well, you know." For producer Bob Levy, one of the film’s most interesting moments comes from a discovery that producer and co-writer John Morris made by chance. "At the risk of sounding pretentious, we tried to put a little bit of everything in this movie: comedy, sex, drama, emotion and the tiniest modicum of poetry in the form of the Shoe Tree," he
says. "John happened upon one outside Reno, Nevada and put it in the script. Tim Orr, our cinematographer took that moment of poetry in our script blueprint and elevated it to genuine filmmaking poetry.
"To me, it’s the single most beautiful image in the movie," he continues. "The Shoe Tree is covered with shoes that have been tied together and flung into it. It’s weird and gorgeous. There are 480 pairs of shoes in the shoe tree. The art department bought shoes by the pound—they had to throw out all the loafers, because they couldn’t tie them together. We shot it in about three or four hours, and the next week we had to go back and untie every pair of shoes and take them down. It almost breaks my heart that we created this beautiful thing for the movie and now the Shoe Tree is gone."